What do the Iranian people want?

Faced with a false choice between authoritarianism and imperialism, the Iranian people reject both.

Iran sanctions
Ordinary Iranians have been most affected by the sanctions imposed on Iran by the US, writes Bouzari [Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/Reuters]

In mid-May, an open letter was sent to the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini signed by 200 well-known intellectuals. It was an appeal to save the nuclear deal and to avoid a potential military escalation between Iran and the United States.

The letter reflects a widely held belief that Washington and its aggressive policies lie at the core of Iran’s misfortune and suffering. US President Donald Trump is perceived as the main culprit and evil-doer.

He is, but his policies are not the only reason behind the suffering of the Iranian people. The Islamic Republic’s much-lauded nuclear programme has had a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Iranians, both economically and politically.

Contrary to the regime’s claims, having such a programme does not reflect the popular will of the people. Instead, the nuclear programme reflects the ambitions of the top nomenklatura of the Islamic Republic which has been unfazed by and, in fact, has benefited from sanctions imposed as a result of it.

Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the reinstatement of sanctions has presented political activism in Iran with a dilemma – one with which all Middle Eastern peoples have grappled for decades. The Iranian people stand between domestic authoritarianism and Western imperialism and neither force has their interest in mind.

A sanctions-fed oppressive kleptocracy

Historically, Tehran’s nuclear project has had many domestic opponents and critics, whose voices have been silenced by the authorities. They have argued, time and again, that a nuclear programme has many aspects that are uneconomic and redundant for a country with vast oil, gas, and solar resources. They have also warned about the spectre of a nuclear disaster, like the one in Chernobyl.

The Islamic Republic’s insistence to continue its nuclear programme and its reluctance to discuss the issue for years has contributed to comprehensive sanctions being imposed under the Bush and Obama administrations. These sanctions – a predictable consequence of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear pursuits – crippled Iran’s economy as well as the lives of ordinary Iranians.


Besides, it has produced a mafia-like economy driven by a bewildering “neither war nor peace” situation. This atmosphere of uncertainty has given an opportunity to parasitic individuals and institutions to engage in massive-scale corruption and plunder of the country’s resources.

They have built a kleptocratic regime which lacks long-term economic vision and which retains a full monopoly over the country’s economy.

Its policies are as detrimental to the economy as US sanctions are. Its network of brokerage firms exporting raw materials and importing goods and services are as damaging to local production as US sanctions are.

Allocating all levers of the economy to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has put pressure on Iranian workers and farmers, as much as US sanctions have. The structural adjustment programmes imposed by both reformists and hardliners of the Islamic Republic are no less responsible for the high inflation and unemployment than US sanctions are.

Iran’s interventionist policies – in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq – as the “Big Brother” of the region are as much to blame for the impoverishment of the Iranian people, as US sanctions are.

When some of the sanctions were lifted, however, it was not the ordinary Iranians who benefited. It was again the ruling elite reaping the benefits of the nuclear deal. Trump’s decision to re-impose the sanctions will not affect their profits. Iran’s ruling families will continue to syphon the country’s wealth into Western banks.

And the Iranian people – they have no say in all this; the electoral ritual of choosing every four years “between the lesser of two evils” does not really give them a voice. They haven’t been asked whether they support the official slogans of “death to America” or the nuclear programme. But neither Trump nor the Iranian regime actually care about “the popular will” in Iran.

A false choice between authoritarianism and imperialism

The intellectuals who signed the letter to Mogherini have overlooked this context. They have simplified the complexity of Iran-US relations to an antagonism between the warmongering Trump administration and the peace-seeking Islamic Republic, without mentioning their points of contact and their mutual reinforcement.

The Iranian middle class have bought into this narrative, warning against an impending humanitarian disaster under the new sanctions. This narrow view disregards their own agency; they could indeed reject both the sanctions and those domestic policies that led to them.


Trapped between the Trump administration and the domestic oppressors are ordinary people. They are offered a choice between imperialism and authoritarianism. However miserable their situation might be, they continue to reject both.

By reinstating the sanctions, Trump solidifies the unholy alliance between the corrupt ruling elite in Iran and his warmongering camp in the US. Both sides benefit from the ambiguity of the “neither war nor peace” situation.

Both sides have used the saga of the nuclear programme to silence their opposition domestically and gain political leverage globally. People in Iran have never been consulted on negotiations before or heard by either side and, at this point, they refuse to be lectured by them.

The fight for freedom and equality is a slow and steady journey, and people will eventually get what they struggle for. They don’t need “help” from outside, especially if it comes on the back of American bombs.

This does not mean, however, that they are to submit themselves to a corrupt theocratic oligarchy. They have been struggling to find a third way.

The 2017/2018 uprising put an end to not only the factionalism in Iran – reformists vs hardliners – but also the bogus choice of authoritarianism at home or imperialism from abroad.

That struggle is our only way out of this ordeal. It is what those who signed the open letter to Federica Mogherini have to recognise. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.